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Elizabeth Warren Clarifies The Charter Schools Debate

Are charter schools a “progressive” idea for education? Some progressive sources would have you think so, but other progressives have challenged that framing.

This week, Massachusetts news outlets reported the state’s most prominent politician, and one of the nation’s most important progressive leaders, Senator Elizabeth Warren threw the supposedly progressive framing of charter schools into doubt when she announced officially her opposition to a ballot initiative in November to expand the number of charters in the Bay State.

The referendum, called Question 2, calls for lifting the cap on the number of charters allowed in the state, allowing for as many as 12 new charter schools per year.

In her statement, Warren explains that although some charter schools are “excellent,” her concern about Question 2 is about what “this specific proposal means for hundreds of thousands of children across our Commonwealth, especially those living in districts with tight budgets where every dime matters. Education is about creating opportunity for all our children, not about leaving many behind.”

In other words, Warren’s progressive values, which few would dispute she possesses, have persuaded her to reject a policy idea that may benefit some of her constituents but neglects, or even does potential harm, to the broader population.

Warren had signaled her potential opposition to Question 2 back in August when she told reporters, “I’m just concerned about the proposal and what it means for the children all across the Commonwealth … Public officials have a responsibility not just to a small subset of children but to all of the children, to make sure that they receive a first-rate education.”

Warren’s views about charter schools and other forms of “school choice” have been a matter of much speculation by school choice advocates because of a positive mention of school vouchers in a book she co-authored 13 years ago. But a recent conversation Warren had with education historian Diane Ravitch threw those speculations into doubt, when Ravitch reported on her personal blog that Warren is unlikely to fall in line with charter school doctrinaire.

Now we know Ravitch’s assertions were well founded.

A Drain On Local Schools

Warren has good cause to be concerned about expanding charter schools in her state.

Over 150 Massachusetts communities, at last count, have gone on record to oppose Question 2, no doubt due in large part due to the financial impact charter schools have on school district funding levels.

As a recent news source in Northampton reports, six nearby charter schools are projected to drain $2,279,216 from the district’s budget, which prompted the local council in that community to vote unanimously to oppose the ballot measure. Said one council member, “Public school districts across the state are losing more than $408 million [to charters] this year alone – a loss of funds that is undermining the ability of districts to provide all students with the educational services to which they are entitled.”

Charter proponents argue that local schools aren’t being financially harmed by charters because as students transfer from public schools to charters, the “money follows the child” and the cost of educating the transferring students merely moves from one education facility to another. But this argument is either profoundly ignorant of school finance or purposefully misleading.

Research studies have shown that the current model for financing charter schools harms the education of public school students. As a public school loses a percentage of its students to charters, the school can’t simply cut fixed costs for things like transportation and physical plant proportionally. It also can’t cut the costs of grade-level teaching staff proportionally. That would increase class sizes and leave the remaining students underserved. So instead, the school cuts a program or support service – a reading specialist, a special education teacher, a librarian, an art or music teacher – to offset the loss of funding.

For these reasons, and others, the introduction of charter schools into communities now invariably sparks division and resentment from parents who stay committed to public schools.

An Exclusionary Approach To Schooling

Charters, as they are currently conceived, are also concerning to anyone with progressive values because of the tendency of these schools to exclude certain students that are more difficult to teach.

Massachusetts charter schools in particular have had a history of cherry picking students.

For instance Bay State charters, compared to district schools, have a tendency to under-enroll students with disabilities; although there is some evidence the schools are making progress on this front. And in Boston and other urban centers in the state, charters tend to under-enroll students whose first language isn’t English.

Another exclusionary tactic charters often employ is to use harsh discipline codes and out-of-school suspensions to push out students who exhibit behavior problems or who struggle with school rules and academic work.

A 2014 article in the Boston Globe cited a report finding, “Boston charter schools are far more likely than traditional school systems to suspend students, usually for minor infractions such as violating dress codes or being disrespectful, a high-risk disciplinary action that could cause students to disengage from their classes … Of the 10 school systems in Massachusetts with the highest out-of-school suspension rates, all but one were charter schools.”

One Boston charter school had suspended 60 percent of its students.

Students who are frequently suspended are much more apt to leave, and once they leave, charter schools are not required to fill the empty seats with new students. As students progress from grade-level to grade-level, this allows charters to sort out “the chaff” among its students until the entering grade class is reduced to only those students who are more apt to score well on tests and eventually graduate. This filtering process shows up in the high student attrition at charters.

Based on recent research conducted by classroom teacher and PhD candidate Mark Weber, who blogs under the moniker of Jersey Jazzman, every Boston independent charter high school has a higher student attrition rate than their public school counterpoints as a whole, meaning that the freshman class that had enrolled in the school originally eroded in size by the time graduation rolled around. In one case, a charter school’s freshman class shrank by more than half by the time they were seniors.

A Favored Cause Of Big Money

Finally, Warren, who is best known for battling Wall Street and the interests of big finance, likely sees that these are the very same people funding the campaign to pass Question 2.

According to Louisiana public school teacher and author Mercedes Schneider, as of September 9, the effort in favor of Question 2 had raised roughly $17.8 million, with the largest amount of money coming from Walmart Arkansas billionaire siblings Jim and Alice Walton, who together contributed $1,835,000.

Another source of money to push for Question 2, according to Schneider, comes from “Massachusetts bankers and hedge funders” which have contributed a total of $437,410 to the campaign. “Twenty-four of the above hedge funders/bankers identified as employees of Fidelity Investments,” she notes.

Public broadcasting source WGBH reports other funders of the campaign for Question 2 include New York-based Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy and Education Reform Now Advocacy, which both have strong ties to the hedge fund industry. Those two groups, along with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, put in $6,240,000.

Other contributors to the campaign to pass Question 2 are decidedly more prone to back causes aligned to conservative Republicans rather than progressive Democrats. In an interview on her Edushyster blog, Jennifer Berkshire talks with political scientist Maurice Cunningham who explains that funding to support Question 2 is driven by “a handful of wealthy families that … largely give to Republicans, and they represent the financial industry.”

According to Cunningham, these funders are mostly “out of Bain, they’re out of Baupost, they’re out of High Fields Capital Management.” Other backers include “billionaire Seth Klarman … the largest GOP donor in New England” and Republican strategists Will Keyser and Jim Conroy.

Other contributors to the pro-charter initiative include corporations in the IT, manufacturing, healthcare, and pharmaceutical industries.

A Collision Course With Progressives

Adding to the financial industry’s support for charters is the full-throated support for charters coming from Republican politicians.

In a recent campaign address, presidential candidate Donald Trump called school choice the “civil rights cause of our time,” thereby adopting the rhetoric of establishment Republicans including his primary opponents Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Jeb Bush in support of charter school expansions.

Of course, Warren could have other reasons to oppose the expansion of charters in her state. And there are certainly many charter schools that adhere to the progressive ideals that originally motivated the creation of these schools.

But that’s not the point.

When advocates for charter schools decided to embrace a school choice financial model that cripples existing neighborhood schools, to adopt education practices that exclude and push out the most challenging students, and to join forces with the financial industry and right wing Republicans, they put their movement on a collision course with anyone who has progressive values.

Senator Warren’s opposition to Question 2 is proof the car wreck is happening.

  • Robert Helmick says:

    This article is an excellent analysis of the charter school question. I hope it is widely circulated.

    September 29, 2016 at 3:00 pm
  • georgepenman says:

    fyi. the link “Use this link to send us your thoughts.” doesn’t go anywhere.

    Here’s my comment though: The stealth privatizers almost always have their own self-interest at heart, not the public good. http://www.gopiswrong.com/

    September 29, 2016 at 3:23 pm
  • kathleenvk says:

    Charter schools continue to erode our public school system. Where are our kids going to be educated when public schools are so choked for funds they cease to exist? There is nothing progressive about this trend. I believe the destruction of the public school system is the planned consequence, not a unintended result. There are people who do not believe in universal free elementary education. These people want to reestablish a poorly educated workforce without the critical skills necessary to organize for decent wages and safe work places.

    September 29, 2016 at 4:11 pm
  • John A says:

    Given enrollment issues with students with disabilities and/ or limited
    English proficiency, along with disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of students with socia/behavioral concerns, we NEVER hear about any compliance or monitoring of charter schools by the Deparatment of Secondary and Elementary Students (DSES). The apparent lack of state oversight of charter schools is glaring. Are possible civil rights violations being overlooked? Warren has put the lie to the charter school’s assertion that they are advocates for progressive education.

    September 29, 2016 at 4:30 pm
  • Claire Carsman says:

    When charter schools first started it was believed that would give opportunities to create more innovative instructional programs – free from the “minutes” requirements. In fact, what they have done is bleed the Public Schools. Not what public education is supposed to be doing. They’re a hoax – private schools on public money.

    September 29, 2016 at 4:35 pm
  • Mary A Leon says:

    This is the Republican Tea Party’s idea for sure. They want our children, our FUTURE to become so ignorant they won’t ask questions or defy authority. They will do what they are told and be happy for the little ‘peanuts’ they will be thrown to survive on.

    I’ve studied charter schools, and even though some are good, almost all of the are unaccredited and have a right wing agenda. As long as they teach the basics: Reading, Writing and Mathematics, they are free to add their own agenda to the mix.

    They ARE draining funds from Public Schools, which have to accept ALL children, no matter if they have a disability or ADHD or come from another country and don’t speak English.

    Is THIS what we want for our children? Not to be able to receive a good education? If these charter schools are allowed to grow, the decades national policy of ALL children being able to attend school will be destroyed.

    September 29, 2016 at 7:11 pm
  • Steve Long says:

    Thanks for the informative article. Hopefully, Senator Warren’s comments will help set the record straight.

    I am still disturbed by the television ads that argue that “proposition 2 will mean MORE money for public education.” How do they get away with making such outlandish claims. Charter schools in Worcester drain $23 million from our school district’s budget each year, and this proposal would only increase that drain.

    It reminds me of the false claims that were made with the water bottle deposit proposition was on the ballot. The ad claims were that adding a deposit to water bottles would cost taxpayers millions of dollars, but no one ever countered with the facts that Maine had already implemented a bottle bill without any of the catastrophes that the negative ads portrayed.

    September 29, 2016 at 7:24 pm
  • John Van Horn says:

    Perhaps my greatest objection to the charter school movement is its underlying elitism. Different students mature at different rates: a student who seems to offer little promise at one point may surge later (maybe in middle or high school) and graduate with honors. And it is often that student’s interactions with other–non elite–students that may spur that surge. Such a student can stimulate his/her classmates far better than any teacher can, and gifted teachers often know exactly how to draw that student out. That exceptional student may well be better able to get material across to their cohort much better than the teacher can, simply by opening a dialogue with his/her cohorts.

    September 29, 2016 at 8:00 pm
  • micah6 says:

    Our society is so screwed up when billionaires spend.millions to take over public schools and bleed them of needed funds. Think of what public schools could do with the cash the Walmart heirs are pumping into this campaign.

    September 29, 2016 at 9:35 pm
  • Elizabeth says:

    Reading the article, I had the same thought. Why not use the campaign money to finance the Charter schools and leave the public money for the public schools.

    September 29, 2016 at 10:34 pm
  • alice fisher says:

    Thank you Elizabeth Warren for again supporting what will do the most good for the most people. I have yet to find any form of “privatization” that works for the average citizen,

    September 30, 2016 at 12:49 am
  • Greg Mack says:

    Regarding “school choice” – don’t folks already have choices for schools? For every public school serving a neighborhood, aren’t there also plenty of private options available to those folks seeking a “choice?” Is it my responsibility to fund someone else’s “school choice?” Unfortunately, may folks seem to think that their “choice” in school selection should be publicly funded. Instead, I’d ask them to get involved and drive the change they’re seeking by working with the public schools to make those changes possible. After all, last I heard, I do not have a “choice” in selecting which fire or police department serves my family.

    September 30, 2016 at 4:41 pm
  • kirby urner says:

    As one of those IT people who advocated for a specific charter school here in Portland, I’m likewise concerned that public schooling should keep up with the times. If the local public high school offers some serious IT skills, excellent. If not, industry needs to assist somehow. How?

    September 30, 2016 at 6:53 pm
  • Aztecace says:

    In the state of Florida, the state has decided that only the public schools have to take the state’s achievement test which is suppose to show how well a school is doing and to award money based on its letter grade, A schools getting the most with F schools getting little to none, the Charter school students are exempt from this test, so it’s like comparing Apples to Oranges if you are a parent, no way to tell if the Charter is any good. Florida’s Charter school like in this article has suggested also gets to Cherry pic it’s student to a certain extent.

    October 2, 2016 at 5:15 pm

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